India began to lock down its capital ahead of this weekend’s Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, deploying 100,000 police, roof-top snipers and helicopters amid warnings of terrorist threats.
While the buildup to the event, in which 7,000 athletes will compete, has been dominated by reports of filthy rooms at the games village, a bigger than usual outbreak of dengue fever and the collapse of footbridge near the main stadium, security fears spiked after the shooting of two Taiwanese nationals near an historic mosque.
About 80,000 police along with more than 15,000 members of the paramilitary security force will guard the sports venues and travel routes crisscrossing the city of 14 million people, Rajan Bhagat, a spokesman for Delhi police said in an interview yesterday.
“We have made elaborate security arrangements keeping in mind all kind of eventuality, including terrorist attacks,” Bhagat said, adding intelligence agencies hadn’t received any “specific input” pointing to a threat to the games.
Security forces may be “fully prepared against possible acts of catastrophic or mass casualty terrorism,” yet they seem “ill-organized to deal with small” episodes of violence meant to spread panic, Bahukutumbi Raman, an analyst at the Institute for Topical Studies in the city of Chennai and the former counterterrorism director of India’s intelligence agency, said on his website.
Adding to police concerns, a court in Uttar Pradesh state will tomorrow deliver its verdict on the ownership of a religious site disputed by Hindu and Muslim groups, triggering another appeal for calm from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. At stake is land in the town of Ayodhya where the destruction of a mosque in 1992 sparked riots that killed 2,000 people.
The sports event, which Singh’s government had intended as a show of growing economic power to match Beijing’s Olympics, will be guarded by commando strike teams at strategic locations, bomb disposal squads and four rings of security around the athletes’ village, Bhajat said.
A bombing in March this year in the western city of Pune killed 17 people, according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal. The attack was India’s only major terrorist strike since the end of 2008, when 10 Pakistani gunmen launched a three-day siege of Mumbai, leaving 166 dead.
Mike Fennell, chief of the Commonwealth Games Federation said last week that the safety and security of athletes and officials is of “great concern.” Chinese authorities deployed 110,000 soldiers, police and volunteers to defend the 2008 Olympics in the country’s capital.
Team England has been banned from wearing the country’s colors outside of games venues after intelligence officials warned of an increased risk of kidnapping for Britons, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians in New Delhi, the London-based Daily Telegraph reported.
Australia, Canada and the U.K. have all issued travel advisories to their citizens citing terrorism concerns. Australia warned targets may include markets, tourist sites, restaurants and public transport, places that unlike the sporting venues are difficult to fully secure.
About 90 percent of India’s one million police are low- ranking constables who “get practically no training other than physical exercises and polishing of boots,” Naureen Shah, a U.S. lawyer and the author of a Human Rights Watch report on the force, said in an interview last year.
The games village has been transformed into a fortress with over 1,000 security personnel and armed commandos on guard. Loudspeaker announcements at markets and metro stations are urging people to remain vigilant.
This month’s mosque shooting was claimed in an e-mail by the Indian Mujahideen militant group that also said it was responsible for 2008 bombings in Indian cities including Delhi that killed at least 150 people. Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said Sept. 24 the attack was “opportunistic” and may not have been carried out by terrorists.
Athletes and officials from 71 countries and territories, most former British colonies, will travel in dedicated lanes escorted by pilot jeeps with armed personnel, said Bhagat.
Australia’s Dani Samuels, the discus world champion, and English triple-jumper Phillips Idowu are among a string of athletes to withdraw from the event citing health and safety fears. South Africa’s Caster Semenya pulled out with a back injury, Associated Press reported yesterday.
“All venues have been handed over to the Delhi police,” the city’s police chief, Y.S. Dadwal, said yesterday after a review meeting on games security chaired by Chidambaram. “We have perfectly fool-proof security.”
Special corridors between stadia and the village are being kept free of normal traffic during daytime, resulting in snarls. The government will close Delhi’s airspace from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. local time on the opening and closing days of the Games, which run from Oct. 3-14.
“We are ready for any eventuality -- from the ground to the air,” Bhagat said.